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THE CIVIL WAR
SELECTED AND EDITED
BY RICHARD GRANT WHITE
647 • W58
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1866, by
THE AMERICAN News COMPANY, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the
Southern District of New York.
root is generally true that great events do not X i nspire great poems. Upon the Reformation, k es the Cromwellian Rebellion, the French Revolution, our own War of Independence, nothing important and enduring has been written in verse. Barlow's “ Columbiad” is a fair type of the poetry produced upon such subjects. There is little hope for a poem, if the poet trusts for the interest of his work to the dignity of his theme. To the poet pertains the power of elevating his subject ; nay, the very essence of his poetry is in that elevation, — in his adding himself to his subject. The choice of a great event as the theme for a poem is unwise, because the poet can hardly fail to fall short of the mental elevation produced by the relation of such an event in simple prose. He will find himself compelled to assume the position of a decorator rather than that of a creator ; and his decorations will only call attention to their littleness and the grandeur of the reality to which they have been appended. The “Iliad," and the “ Gerusalemme Liberata,” are not exceptions to this rule; and the “ Paradise Lost” may be one only in seeming. It
was no mere poetical formula, that prayer of Milton's that he might have strength to rise to the height of bis great argument; and with all the beauty and nobility of thought and sustained power in his chief epic, another generation must pass ere it can be safely said that the fame which he owes to the criticism of the Queen Anne school of literature will endure in its present proportions, and that he did indeed soar high enough to be above his theme. And unless he did so, the chief merit of his poem is not in its poetry, which is his, but in the facts narrated in it, which he derived from others. “ The Iliad” is a marked instance of the power of a poet's genius to aggrandize the subject of his song. The bloody strife between the chiefs of a few petty semi-barbarous tribes about a wanton woman have been made by the genius of Homer to assume such dignity and proportion that for centuries they have filled the minds of men as the ideal of great and martial enterprise ; and two little streams that would hardly more than turn a village mill, and which are associated with no event or function so important to mankind, (unlike the Jordan or the Rubicon, for instance,) have a place in the world's memory unequalled by that of rivers that have fertilized half a continent, and have been for centuries the highways of commerce and the channels of civilization.
But although great poems are rarely inspired by great events, in modern days the feelings of civilized
been already so often quoted as to be almost common property. My acknowledgments are also due to the proprietors of “ Harpers’ Magazine,” “ Harpers' Weekly Journal,” and the “ Atlantic Monthly” magazine, for permission to make selections from their pages ; and to those useful collections, Mr. Frank Moore's “ Rebellion Record,” and Littell's “Living Age," I am also indebted. Many of the compositions — of those owned by their authors as well as of those which have remained anonymous — I have been unable to trace to papers in which they first appeared.
R. G. W.